The Sunday Magazine

Heather O'Neill on finding magic in dark places

The award-winning Canadian writer Heather O'Neill's new novel, "The Lonely Hearts Hotel," is set in 1930s Montreal, where cheap hotel rooms are home to heroin addicts and prostitutes with wild ambitions and vivid imaginations.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a novel by Heather O'Neill. (Julia C. Vona, HarperCollins)

Heather O'Neill's wildly inventive debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals was a child's-eye-view of the Montreal's underbelly, and the pimps and drug dealers who rule its parks and old hotels. It was a finalist for a Governor General's Literary Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and it won CBC Radio's Canada Reads in 2007. 

Her second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, was a Giller Prize Finalist in 2014. Heather O'Neill was also short-listed for the prize in 2015 for her short story collection Daydreams of Angels.

O'Neill's new novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, is set in 1930s Montreal. It has all the qualities of a fairy tale. 

It is a Montreal where cheap hotel rooms are home to heroin addicts and prostitutes with wild ambitions and vivid imaginations. True love is not taken lightly, gangsters and imaginary dancing bears roam the streets, and orphans and misfits make their own magic.

She spoke to Michael about her new novel, finding beauty in dark topics, and her early years in Montreal. 

Her fascination with old hotels

That area of Montreal that I love describing, its streets are filled with old hotels that seem to have their own personality. In this book, I kind of took it even to another level. Some of the hotels are cantankerous, and they deliberately will slam doors in people's faces, and some are more light-hearted. I remember as a child, almost imagining it as if the wall had been taken off, so it was like a dollhouse...and of course, because of the nature of the neighbourhood, there was quite a range of what was happening. 

The magic of 1930s Montreal

It was the era that my dad had grown up in, in Montreal, and he raised me. He would always tell me bedtime stories about his childhood in that neighbourhood, and all the crimes he had committed, and the criminals he had met, and the wonderful heyday... I would fall asleep listening to tales of a friend of his trying to rob a bank, or selling stolen suits to gangsters. So for me, all these gangster tales, they had a wonderful, magical quality, because I'd heard them as a child. 

Montreal's Place D'Youville in the 1930s. (City of Montreal Archives)

Writing about orphans

Every main character that I've ever written has been a motherless child. I didn't have a mother, and I think it's imposed something on my imagination, that all my characters also have that absence in their life. In this one, I was interested in orphans because they appear so frequently in fairy tales, and also I was interested in the idea of completely inventing one's own narrative. I don't believe children belong to their parents, and to become happy in life one kind of has to break through from the constrictions and find out who one is. So these children, instead of being orphans being a negative thing, they used it as a source of empowerment. They could invent who they were and write their own narrative. 

The aftermath of trauma

In Pierrot, [one of the main characters of The Lonely Hearts Hotel], I was writing the tale of a survivor, because I'm interested in how people survive abuse and then go on to feel fulfilled as adults. Oftentimes, when we experience traumatic events, we're always looking to our old selves and trying to reclaim that person, but it's impossible. We've been so metaphysically changed by the trauma that happens to us that we have to learn to love the abused self, and understand the ramifications of that abuse on our personality.

Clowns and circus performers

I always liked the existentialism of a circus. Essentially, clowns perform mundane routines, but within them, they include all of human suffering. If a clown is washing his face, while he is washing his face he is also speaking to the existential malaise that is existing in the the 20th century then, or the 21st century, when we're conscious of all the evil that happens. 

A clown participates in the Latin American Clown Convention in Mexico City, on October 23, 2013. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty)

Growing up with "poetic novels about brutal childhoods" 

I'd find something like Gorky's My Childhood, which is just so brutal. But for me, it was just transcendent. I just wanted to follow those paths, because all those tales, they seem so incredibly dark, but they're about people who came from dark places and managed to find light. For me, they were incredibly redemptive — because I understood immediately that it wasn't a dark tale, it was a tale about surviving. It was a tale about triumph. 

Why she loves writing sex scenes

When I approach [sex scenes], I approach them with a great sort of reverence. When I was young I read a lot, and I did adore Victorian novels. I remember reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles as a teenager, and then there came the crucial scene where Tess gets seduced by the villain, and then I turned the page and she was pregnant. I was like, "What? How dare you!" This was such an interesting scene, and I really want to know what Tess and this fellow did in the bedroom. I mean, therein lies the drama. What happens when the door closes? And isn't that what novels are all about? 

Heather O'Neill's comments have been edited and condensed. Click the 'play' button above to hear the interview. 

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